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British Columbia introduced a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in April (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Analysis: Public acceptance of sin taxes on sugar or fat not dependent on evidence

Associate Professor, Political Science, Katherine Boothe, and Research Assistant, Nicole Fiorillo were featured in the Conversation.

Nov 04, 2021

It’s easy to assume that public health measures, such as taxing unhealthy foods, are most successful when they are based on the best available evidence. However, research suggests that evidence-based policy-making doesn’t always dictate public response. Researchers have also noted tensions between different types of evidence when establishing the legitimacy of a policy.

We study taxes placed on foods that are deemed unhealthy, and find scientific evidence has not dominated the debates over the legitimacy of these measures. Instead, a food tax’s chances of survival are based on the ability of political interests to create a successful narrative surrounding the policy’s purpose.

We compare Denmark, which implemented and quickly repealed a tax on saturated fats in 2011-12, and Ireland, which implemented a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in 2018 that has remained in place.

A tale of two taxes

Our findings demonstrate how certain public health measures are made acceptable to the public. They tell us about the importance of narratives in the successful implementation of similar food taxes in Canada. They also raise questions about when similar narratives may be relevant to other types of public health measures.

What shaped public discussion and controversy over food taxes in Denmark and Ireland? In both these countries, the success or failure of the tax depends on two factors. First, how sympathetic were potential “winners and losers” under the tax? Second, did previous policies provide a template for the public to understand and potentially accept the tax?

Read the article in full.